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California university, students revolt against failing cafe named for Che Guevara

  • checafe.jpg

    The all-ages café, which has been a campus fixture for more than three decades, has hosted mega-acts like Nirvana and Green Day prior to their big breaks, but now the nonprofit collective is potentially facing a final curtain call of its own after extensive repairs were ordered by campus fire marshals in the wake of an independent assessment. (checafe.ucsd.edu)

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    Ernesto 'Che' Guevara, seen here in an Associated Press file photo, is the namesake of a nonprofit collective cafe that's brewing controversy on the campus of the University of California-San Diego.

Long after his death, Che Guevara, who some regard as a ruthless killer and others adore as an icon of revolution, is teaching a new generation of students about the failure of communism.

University of California-San Diego students have run the “Che Café Collective” for 34 years, a vegan co-op and concert venue boasting “exorbitantly low” prices and volunteer staffing. But it’s consistently in the red, costing the student body nearly $1 million over the years, and isn’t kept up to fire or safety codes. School officials are threatening to cut off funding, which would shut down the campus fixture, but a band of students is fighting back.

“The venue has been operating for 34 years and it’s the longest-running volunteer space in Southern California, if not in all of California,” café volunteer Rene Vera told FoxNews.com. “And our building is covered in murals that document a lot of that history.”

“We feel like we’re flying blind.”

- Rene Vera, Che Cafe Collective volunteer

In its heyday, the café reportedly hosted up-and-coming acts like Nirvana and Green Day. Staffers would feed the band, often with donated food, and the audience got the leftovers. The decidedly un-capitalist business model worked until crowds began to dwindle, extensive repairs were ordered by campus fire marshals and student groups got sick of subsidizing it. 

The university’s student-run newspaper, The Guardian, characterized the venue as a “money pit consistently plagued with safety issues” in a recent editorial, urging its principals to start utilizing better fiscal management of nearly $1 million in student fees.

“Many students also don’t realize that the money being spent on the café’s renovation comes directly from student fees; in other words, we are collectively pouring almost one million dollars of our money into repairing a cooperative that the vast majority of us don’t even use.”

The venue’s fate was tabled late Tuesday, the third time the school's student-led advisory board has met on whether to cut its funding.

Messages seeking comment from Associated Students of UCSD, which oversees maintenance and programming at the venue, were not immediately returned early Wednesday. But a university source close to the matter who wished to remain anonymous told FoxNews.com that structural problems have long been an issue at the café on the southern edge of campus. Just two years ago, the café nearly had to close its doors after reportedly falling behind on insurance payments to the tune of $12,000.

“It almost didn’t make it,” the source said.

Che Café volunteers say the latest effort to shutter the cafe is an “orchestrated attack.” They allege university officials, including Interim University Centers Director Sharon van Bruggen, proposed on May 1 that the building be closed at the end of the school year, ultimately serving as a booking agent for an on-campus bar.

The attorney for Che Café claims that university management has deferred maintenance of the facilities for decades since repairs were recommended in a 2009 audit, failing to set aside the necessary revenues for repairs.

"This is why the collective suspects some intentional motive on the part of the administration to shut the collective down or displace them by claiming fiscal crisis and due to their own mismanaging of student fee revenues," the attorney said Wednesday in a statement to FoxNews.com.

The cafe's namesake, Ernesto "Che" Guevara, who was killed in Bolivia in 1967, was a key figure in the Cuban Revolution he fought alongside Fidel Castro. His legacy remains a contentious issue decades after his death, but the guerilla leader has enjoyed a posthumous resurgence in popularity among some circles, in no small part to the "Guerrillero Heroico" image characterized by some as the world's most famous photograph.

Students shouldn't have to prop up a failing business just because of their classmates' nostalgic romanticism, said one student.

"I do not believe Che Cafe closing will be a severe blow to the campus' overall aesthetic," soon-to-be graduate Marco Vasquez, a political science major and vice chair of the university's College Republicans, told FoxNews.com in an email. "The majority of students that I have spoken to do not know what or where the Che Cafe is, given that it is on the edge of campus. Those who do know either visit it regularly or describe it as creepy."

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